The war in Ukraine, great power rivalry in Asia, inflation, and food and energy shortages are on the agenda as leaders prepare for the third back-to-back gathering this week, a Pacific Rim summit taking place in a heavily guarded venue in Thailand’s capital.
Leaders from the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum will meet formally in closed-door sessions Friday and Saturday. For some, it will be at least the third such opportunity for face-to-face talks in the past two weeks, though the U.S. is represented in Bangkok by Vice President Kamala Harris, who is attending instead of President Joe Biden.
APEC’s official mission is to promote regional economic integration. Most of the business conducted happens on the summit’s sidelines in meetings such as a planned meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
The two Asian powers have a history of tense relations, a legacy of Japan’s World War II aggression compounded by territorial disputes and China’s growing military might. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Mao Ning, said the encounter would “carry great importance.”
Xi, Harris and French President Emmanuel Macron will also speak at a business conference held just ahead of the summit meetings that are mostly closed to media apart from outlets sponsoring the event.
The APEC meetings are being held in downtown Bangkok’s main convention center, which is cordoned off with some streets in the area completely closed to all traffic. Rows of riot police stood guard behind the barricades at a major intersection nearby, underscoring host Thailand’s determination to ensure the summit suffers no disruptions.
“The APEC meeting this year takes place amidst a dual jeopardy. We need not be reminded of the severe security conflicts that know not what victory looks like. Meanwhile, the world is staring at the hyper inflation married to recession, a broken supply chain and scarcity and climate calamities,” Don Pramudwinai, Thailand’s foreign minister said in opening a meeting of foreign ministers and commerce ministers who were working on draft statements due to be issued after the summit.
Alluding to Russia and its recent condemnation of its war on Ukraine, he also said there was a growing “cancel mentality” that makes “any compromise appear impossible.”
Before the summit, Thai officials said they were hoping to steer APEC toward long-term solutions in various areas, including climate change, economic disruptions, and faltering recoveries from the pandemic.
“What we are going to do is to have all economies agree on a set of targets … climate change mitigation, sustainable trade and investment, environment resources conservation and, of course, waste management,” said Cherdchai Chaivaivid, director-general of Thailand’s Department of International Economic Affairs. “This is the first time that APEC is going to talk about this. This is the first time that we are going to open a new chapter in how trade, business, and investment should be done.”
APEC’s official mission is to promote regional economic integration, which means setting guidelines for the long-term development of a free trade area. Most of its work is technical and incremental, carried out by senior officials and ministers, covering areas such as trade, tourism, forestry, health, food, security, small and medium-size enterprises and women’s empowerment.
Leaders from the 21 economies on both sides of the Pacific Ocean often take the opportunity to conduct bilateral talks and discuss side deals. The Latin American contingent comes from Chile, Mexico and Peru. Other members are Australia, Brunei, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States, and Vietnam.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Biden are no-shows this year. Putin has been avoiding international forums where he would be showered with criticism over the invasion of Ukraine. Biden will be hosting his granddaughter’s wedding at the White House.
That leaves Chinese leader Xi as the star attendee in Bangkok, where he also is making an official visit to Thailand just after obtaining a rare third term as top leader at a once-in-five years Communist Party congress.
Biden is giving ground to China in the competition for friends and influence in Southeast Asia by skipping the APEC meetings. But U.S. officials say Washington has demonstrated its seriousness in relations with the region through frequent visits by Cabinet members including Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and other key senior officials.
As host, Thailand invited three special guests to the meeting: French President Macron; Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the prime minister of Saudi Arabia, and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was to represent the Association of Southeast Asian Nations but will not attend after getting COVID-19.
For Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the most welcome visitor may well be the Saudi leader, who is making an official visit to help restore friendly relations with Thailand after decades of disruption due to a theft of Saudi royal jewelry and the unsolved murders of Saudi diplomats in Bangkok.
“This is a good opportunity, that Mohammed bin Salman is visiting Thailand and both countries will resume a good economic relationship after over 30 years,” the chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, Sanan Angubolkul, told The Associated Press. “To have the French president join us also shows how important this region is.”
The war in Ukraine remains a likely thorn in APEC’s consensus-oriented efforts. None of the earlier APEC meetings this year issued statements due to disagreements over whether to mention the conflict.
Like Indonesia, which hosted the Group of 20 summit in Bali this week, and Cambodia, which hosted the ASEAN meetings, Thai officials have put the best possible face on the situation, contending that agreement on other points will allow APEC to move forward regardless.
Skeptics doubt the meeting will accomplish much.
“This APEC is only a photo opportunity for leaders. Its agenda has drawn much less attention than the ASEAN summit and G-20,” Virot Ali, a political scientist at Thailand’s Thammasat University, told The Associated Press.
“I don’t think we will see any progress from APEC. The current geopolitics, trade war, COVID-19, and Russia-Ukraine war are the issues that people are paying more attention to and feeling more impact from,” he said.
Associated Press journalists Grant Peck and Tassanee Vejpongsa contributed to this report.